By Sir Ronald Sanders
The question has to be asked. Are some people in Caribbean countries becoming the architects of their own and the region’s destruction?
There is clearly an organized anti-vaccination campaign throughout the region. Who is behind the campaign is unclear, but what is evident is that opposition political parties and criminal elements in Caribbean societies are taking advantage of the anti-COVID-19 vaccination sentiment for their own narrow purposes.
So, while great strides had been made in countries such as Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Guyana to suppress the coronavirus and curb its spread through a vigorous inoculation program against the pandemic, that march is now being halted.
The process, that was taking many Caribbean countries to ‘herd’ or ‘community’ immunity, is now being derailed. This means that the countries, particularly tourism-dependent ones, that were heading toward opening their borders and recovering their economies with the obvious attendant benefits for their populations, will now be a setback, if not gravely reversed.
The people of Caribbean countries where this situation takes hold will have no one to blame but themselves. Vaccines now exist and are available for most countries to inoculate 70 percent of their adult population. The provision by the government of the United States of Pfizer vaccines, suitable for children, to six CARICOM countries, has enhanced their capacity to immunize their people against the lethal coronavirus. The six countries that are recipients of Pfizer doses so far are Antigua and Barbuda (17,500); The Bahamas (397,000); Barbados (70,200); St Kitts-Nevis (11,700); St Vincent and the Grenadines (35,100), and Trinidad and Tobago (305,370). Other Caribbean countries will also be beneficiaries as soon as they settle requirements for storing and distributing the vaccines safely.
The US donation fortifies supplies of vaccines that have been delivered through the COVAX facility, administered by the World Health and Pan American Health Organizations, as well as gifts from India, Russia, and China to several countries.
Caribbean countries, principally Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados, enjoyed great success in the early stage of the inoculation program. But this initial enthusiasm by people who recognized the value of being immunized from a deadly disease concealed the anti-vaccination movement that had already taken hold.
Oddly, the success of many Caribbean governments and health authorities in suppressing the coronavirus and curbing its spread also contributed to the propaganda that the virus would not kill and that greater risk exists from inoculation. The anti-vaxxers seized upon the containment of the disease as some sort of warped evidence that it was better to contract it than to prevent it.
Consequently, there has been a recent resurgence of COVID-19 infections throughout the Caribbean. In Martinique, a French island neighboring Saint Lucia and Dominica, it is so bad that the authorities have locked down the country again and asked all tourists to leave. While Martinique can afford this drastic step because it is politically and administratively a part of France which gives it budgetary support, should CARICOM countries take similar action, they would immediately suffer even further economic decline. This time, economic recovery and a return to any semblance of normal life would be extremely prolonged with long-term unemployment and severely reduced social welfare programs. Many economies would simply collapse.
Additionally, the strain on health systems that are only now being eased from COVID-19 cases would intensify beyond their capacity to cope. Further, other non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, kidney failure, and cancer, would take many lives as resources are diverted again to persons infected by the coronavirus.
Anyone who doubts these real possibilities should check the situation in parts of the US where medical resources are much greater than any CARICOM country. For example, data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control shows that hospital occupancy in Horry County is at 93.3 percent. The report reveals that 94 out of 98 beds in intensive care units are occupied, and 44 of them are COVID-19 patients. Thirty-four patients are currently on ventilators, and 21 of them are COVID-19 sufferers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 cases are rising in nearly 90 percent of jurisdictions in the US, with outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates.
Politics played a huge part in the anti-vaccination campaign in the US, started by former president Donald Trump. It was adopted by right-wing religious and political groups who have exposed their congregations and supporters to illness and death by encouraging gatherings of unmasked persons at which they rail against vaccinations.
Political parties in some CARICOM countries have taken a page from the Trump playbook. They have jumped on the anti-vaccine sentiment in the expectation that protests and marches against inoculation would galvanize a mass movement to topple governments. They have gone as far as to encourage violations of the law and confrontations with police. In St Vincent, this emboldening of lawlessness resulted in a supporter of an opposition political party hurling a stone at the head of 75-year-old Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves that wounded him but could have killed him.
Political parties that irresponsibly align themselves with the anti-vaccination campaign, particularly to violate the law and confront police carrying out their role to protect the wider citizenry, are playing with fire. Not only are they exposing people to disease and death, they are also risking killing economies which, even if their political actions help to topple governments, will leave them with countries so ruined that the majority of their populations will never forgive them.
COVID-19 remains a threat to human life as great as atrocities resulting from terrorism or war. The fact that, unlike leprosy, the disease is not obvious until it has ravaged its victims only hides its lethal effects.
All leaders of Caribbean societies, including politicians who want power, should put the well-being of their people and their countries first.
Sir Ronald Sanders is currently Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United States and the Organization of American States.